West mayor: 'We got hit in the face but we're going to be OK'

Posted Saturday, Apr. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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WEST -- Like his constituents, Mayor Tommy Muska suffered a deep personal loss from the devastating explosion that rocked his small town.

First responders killed in the blast were fellow volunteer firemen and close friends. His home was among the 60-plus that were seriously damaged or destroyed.

Yet, as West confronts a tragedy that no one saw coming, Muska exudes a resilient spirit that is characteristic of this Central Texas community forged by Czech immigrants more than a century ago.

"We're going to be OK," he told the Star-Telegram. "We got hit in the face but we're going to be OK."

"Close-knit" is a phrase used repeatedly by both outsiders and West residents to describe the town's character.

It was evident in the neighbor-helping-neighbor response that unfurled in the first seconds after the blast, when townsfolk rushed to help those who endured the brunt of the explosion.

In the ensuing days, it was evident in the mountains of donated food, clothing and other items at selected relief centers. And it was on display in emotional community services at St. Mary's Church of the Assumption.

"The faith of these people is strong and the Lord is going to help them persevere," said the Rev. Ed Karasek, who has been the priest at St. Mary's for 24 years.

"They pull together."

The Best Western Czech Inn just off Interstate 35, the town's only hotel, quickly became a rallying point for many of those left homeless by the explosion.

The hotel's breakfast room resembled a bargain basement Friday as displaced residents, including many who were staying at the hotel, looked through piles of donated clothes stacked on long folding tables.

A conference room down the hall was packed with canned goods and bottled water.

Bags of donated pet food lined a small entranceway.

"Our house is gone," 56-year-old Debbie Gerdis said as she and her daughter looked for much-needed clothing Friday morning.

"My carport was on my car so I don't have a car."

But she added: "We're lucky. We didn't get hurt."

Like all of those whose homes were damaged or destroyed, Gerdis will remain at least temporarily homeless until officials continue inspecting the damage zone to determine which houses will be condemned and which -- if any -- could be salvaged.

Many left homeless

The families were evacuated from the north-side residential area after the explosion and had virtually no time to gather up belongings. Law officers have kept the area blocked off since the explosion, and officials haven't announced a precise timetable for residents to return.

"I want to get in," Gerdis said. "I want to see what I can salvage."

Travis Dilks, a 29-year-old general construction painter, also came to the Czech Inn on Friday to gather "anything to help," including snacks, toiletries and other items. He was accompanied by his wife, Brittany, and their 3-year-old daughter, Kynlee.

"I don't know if we'll have anything left," he acknowledged. But he expressed a glass-half-full optimism that the town of about 2,800 will ultimately rebound.

"We'll come together as a community; we'll come together as a family," he said. "Everybody does what they can to help everybody at a time like this. It just shows how strong the community is."

State Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, a Waco Republican, represented West for four sessions in the Legislature until January, after legislative boundaries shifted with redistricting.

The townsfolk's sturdy resolve, he said, is deeply ingrained in their immigrant culture.

West was established in the late 19th century by Czech immigrants who arrived in Galveston and then came north to settle the fertile farmland of Central Texas.

It officially became a town shortly after the establishment of a Katy Railroad line and bears the name of an early town leader, Thomas M. West.

Today, Czech names adorn restaurants and offices in the small downtown section. At least 70 percent of West residents are Czech descendants, local historians say, and many are related.

Pulling together

"They're hardworking people," Anderson said after touring the disaster zone on Thursday. "They pull together and tolerate adversity. They'll survive this."

Nevertheless, virtually everyone acknowledges that there will be plenty of pain before the community fully recovers.

At St. Mary's, Father Ed, as he is commonly known in this heavily Catholic community, said many residents are facing a period of "anger and depression" as they struggle to overcome the loss of homes, possessions -- and worst of all -- friends and relatives.

"It's a terrible tragedy. A lot of them are going to have to start all over," he said. He then added rhetorically: "How do you start all over?"

"It's been sad. I've been praying for them," he said during an interview in his church office. "It's like a father losing his children. And it's going to be hard to bury these people that I know."

At the Czech Inn, owner Zac Bolton mourned the loss of West's first responders -- many of whom he had known for years -- even as he maintained a frenetic veneer coordinating donations and taking care of displaced residents.

"We're numb," he said. "I don't have any answer. If somebody does have an answer, speak up. I've already lost at least a dozen of my friends."

The tragedy is certain to remain an indelible big-life memory throughout the community, particularly for those in the blast zone.

The explosion erupted shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday after a fire at the plant ignited highly volatile fertilizer stored there.

'Blew off my hat'

Tommy Muska, an insurance man, volunteer fireman and mayor for the past 21/2 years, was walking toward the blaze in his role as a firefighter and was less than two blocks from the plant when it exploded.

The blast "blew off my hat," Muska recalled, but he was uninjured.

His next reaction, he said, was to vault into his pickup and join others to evacuate nursing home residents near the blast zone.

To much of the outside world, Muska became the best-known spokesman for the unfolding tragedy as he appeared in briefings to update the news media. He also worked continually behind the scenes, fielding constituent phone calls and coordinating recovery efforts.

Has he gotten any sleep, he was asked at midday Friday. "Not much," he replied.

'Debris all over'

Lola Milhollin, 57, was working her shift as an aide at the Rest Haven nursing home in what she said started "as a normal day."

Shortly after the evening meal, she and other aides were alerted to begin evacuating the elderly residents because of the fire at the plant.

"All of a sudden, the whole building just blew," she recalled. "You could feel the force. The windows blew.

The ceiling fell. The light fixtures came down. The sprinkler system broke. We had insulation, glass, and everything all over. And we had debris all over."

Milhollin and fellow staffers got the residents outside as townsfolk and first responders descended on the nursing home to help transport the victims to safety.

Among those on the scene were Jim Kolacek, 46, and his 17-year-old son, Karson, who took residents to a football stadium and helped firefighters connect hoses to hydrants.

Kolacek's family ties in West run deep. His grandfather was in the lumber business. His father ran the Kolache Kitchen bakery for more than three decades until his death seven years ago.

Jim Kolacek owns the town swimming pool, a West landmark since 1945.

"We've been here since the beginning of the town," Kolacek said. What keeps him in West?

"The people," he responds. "We're all just a big family."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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